WASHINGTON — Senator Harry Reid of Nevada knew he would anger Republicans when he threatened to change the rules of the Senate to make it harder for the minority to gum up legislation. But he is also running into resistance from fellow Democrats about the way those rules would be changed — essentially by ramming the changes through with 51 votes, rather than with the agreement of two-thirds of the Senate, which is how rule changes are meant to be made.
Because Republicans are united in their dislike of the proposed changes, Mr. Reid would never get 67 votes — two-thirds of the Senate — to break a filibuster on the filibuster change. So he could instead avail himself of a controversial option that some proponents believe is available only on the first day of a new Congress and change those rules via majority rule, or 51 votes. Opponents insist that such a move would violate Senate rules.
A majority of Democrats, frustrated by what they say is the consistent and brazen abuse of the filibuster by Republicans, appear to support changes to the rules, and some believe they do not go far enough. But others, deeply aware that a majority party today can be the sad and lonely minority tomorrow, are not keen on playing the “nuclear option” card, with majority rule.
“I don’t like the nuclear option,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida. “I reserve the right to decide later, but instinctively I don’t like it. It’s avoiding the rules.” Mr. Nelson added that “a body like this runs on comity and common sense,” and he said he worried that going nuclear would do serious damage to that atmosphere.
The divide exists somewhat along electoral generational lines. Newer senators, appalled by the molasseslike movement of bills and the overall dysfunction of the chamber, have been urging Mr. Reid to make the changes. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who took office in 2009, has been especially ardent, though he gets a great deal of support from Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has been laboring against the filibuster for decades.
The refusal to stomp on the will of the minority is one of the greatest differences between the Senate and the House, where the majority simply rules. Many senators in both parties agree that comity will be damaged if a 51-vote rule change comes to pass. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has been nearly apoplectic about the issue on the Senate floor this week.
Consistently tossing back Mr. Reid’s words from previous years — in which he defended the Senate rules process — Mr. McConnell railed against the proposed changes over and over again. “I’m just perplexed about the judgment on display here,” he said, “blowing up the Senate at a time when the election is behind us.”
But Democrats argue that the filibuster has been increasingly used to block routine nominations, hold up Senate business and generally infuriate the majority, and that the rules must be tightened.
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